Marty Gottesfeld, an activist serving a 10-year prison sentence for offenses stemming from a digital sit-in he engaged in against the Boston Children’s Hospital, was transferred to a Communications Management Unit (CMU) in Terre Haute, Indiana.

When Gottesfeld found out Justina Pelletier was institutionalized in a psychiatric ward in 2013 against her parents’ wishes, he allegedly organized with members of Anonymous and participated in a distributed denial of service (DDOS) operation that disrupted the donation portal for the hospital website.

A jury convicted Gottesfeld in August 2018 of “conspiracy to intentionally damage a protected computer” and “intentional damage to a protected computer,” a violation of the outdated Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). However, they refused to conclude that Gottesfeld’s actions impaired the ability of the hospital to provide medical care to any patients.

Gottesfeld was sentenced to just over 10 years in prison in January and imprisoned at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility until February, when he was temporarily moved to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn until the Bureau of Prisons could place him in a CMU.

CMUs are experimental social isolation units that were initially created in 2006 and 2008. As the Center for Constitutional Rights describes, “Individuals detained in the CMUs are completely banned from any physical contact with visiting family members and friends.”

“Other types of communication are also severely limited, including interactions with non-CMU prisoners and phone calls with friends and family members,” CCR adds.

According to Gottesfeld, on February 15, MDC Brooklyn staff informed him he was designated for a CMU. They did not tell him where he would ultimately be transferred. He was placed in a “special housing unit,” or SHU, and told to expect a “captain’s review.” Only if the captain approved would he be released into general population while he was at MDC Brooklyn.

Gottesfeld arrived at MDC Brooklyn mere days after a scandal erupted over the systemic abuse and mistreatment of prisoners when the facility suffered power outages that left prisoners in freezing temperatures.

He filed a request for an injunction on March 15 urging a federal court in the Southern District of New York to oppose the facility’s decision to segregate him from general population and keep him in a SHU.

On March 18, Judge Paul Gardephe ordered Herman Quay, the warden of MDC Brooklyn, to ensure Gottesfeld appeared in court on March 25 for a “show cause” hearing. BOP officials were asked to provide the court with some justification for why Gottesfeld was in a SHU otherwise the court would order his release into general population.

As it became clear the BOP planned to transfer Gottesfeld to a CMU before he could challenge his confinement conditions in court, the judge ordered BOP officials to notify the court of when they planned to transfer him.

Gottesfeld left MDC Brooklyn on March 26. He went through the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, a transport hub, before arriving at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute.

Despite Gottesfeld’s request to the court that officials make a “credible sufficient showing” that he represented a “threat to the continuing operations of the institution” before transferring him, the court did not ask the BOP to provide any justification for his CMU placement.

In 2010, CCR sued the Attorney General, the BOP director, and the assistant director of the Correctional Programs Division of the BOP. The organization has spent the last eight or nine years challenging how CMUs violate due process rights and undermine constitutional protections that are supposed to be afforded to prisoners.

The BOP claims the authority to place prisoners in CMUs, who are “convicted of, or associated, with international terrorism.” They also designate individuals “convicted of sex offenses who repeatedly attempt to contact their victims” for placement in CMUs.

Additionally, “those who attempt to coordinate illegal activities while incarcerated via approved communication methods” and “those who have received extensive disciplinary actions due to their continued misuse/abuse of approved communication methods” can be targeted for transfer to a CMU.

Officials may also target individuals “with a history of making threats against judicial officers.”

However, as CCR points out, no “meaningful process” exists for prisoners to challenge their placement in a CMU so they can be transferred back to general population.

“Prisoners are not told why they have been transferred to a CMU until after they arrive,” according to CCR. “Even then, the reasons they are provided are frequently vague, inaccurate, and/or completely false, and they are given erroneous—and even impossible—instructions for earning their way out of a CMU.

“Policies governing the CMUs are often unclear and interpreted differently by different BOP decision-makers. In addition, 60 percent of CMU prisoners are Muslim, though Muslims comprise only 6 percent of the federal prisoner population.”

Someone like Gottesfeld may be considered a “balancer,” the label often given to non-Muslim prisoners who help the BOP counter charges that they unfairly target Muslim prisoners.

At Gottesfeld’s sentencing hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney David D’Addio said Gottesfeld put lives in danger, continues to peddle ‘lies and conspiracy theories about his prosecution’ and [was] a serious risk of offending again.” That is not really true because the jury did not believe prosecutors had proven Gottesfeld’s actions impaired any medical operations. Yet, this is what federal prosecutors believe.

Because the system governing CMUs allows BOP officials to withhold information from prisoners on why they are in social isolation units, it is unclear whether this belief shared by federal prosecutors had anything to do with his transfer to Terre Haute.

In Gottesfeld’s handwritten affidavit submitted to the court on March 15, he noted the BOP had never placed him on “restricted correspondence.” He was allowed access to a computer on March 9, when his request to go to the “electronic law library” was granted.

“Staff were well aware of my charges prior to my use of this networked computer service because they asked me about my case and my placement in the SHU,” Gottesfeld shared. “I answered them in no uncertain terms that I am a ‘journalist’ and ‘allegedly a member of the hacking group Anonymous.’”

“They advised me not to try to hack the computer, and I assured them I would not. I was then left alone to operate the computer unsupervised for approximately 40 minutes. Nothing bad happened. I made no attempt to hack anything. I promptly logged off as instructed when my turn was over and returned to my cell,” Gottesfeld added.

Gottesfeld claimed on February 27 he spoke to Quay, when the warden came through the west SHU, where he was confined. He mentioned he was supposed to have a “captain’s review” yet had never spoken to the captain.

“I had never requested protective custody, never been charged with a BOP infraction, had not received an administrative detention order, nor [had I] been to any administrative detention hearing,” Gottesfeld told Quay.

Quay apparently told him he was going to be in the SHU for the rest of his time at MDC Brooklyn. He added, “We have security concerns.” And no “captain’s review” was ever conducted before Gottesfeld was transferred to a CMU in Terre Haute.

While he was at MDC Brooklyn, the facility obstructed his ability to communicate with his attorney, Virginia Villa, who was apparently working on his appeal. A privileged letter sent to him by Villa was opened by prison staff and stamped, “THIS MAIL DOES NOT MEET LEGAL MAIL REQUIREMENTS PER BOP P.S. 5800.16.”

Gottesfeld believes he was designated for a CMU because of his journalism. He contributed an article to The Intercept that was published on February 3. It detailed the conditions of confinement for Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán at Metropolitan Correctional Center New York, where he was held before he was moved to the Plymouth County jail in 2017.

He has also written multiple articles for various outlets that detailed alleged abuses in prison facilities, where he was held over the past three years, and challenged the conduct of the Justice Department.

His wife, Dana, reacted to his transfer, “They are doing this to a journalist who has an open lawsuit against them for First Amendment violations (Gottesfeld v. Horwitz).”

“Putting him in a CMU is obviously intended to curtail his abilities to refute their propaganda. Sending him to the CMU in Terre Haute, Indiana stinks to high heaven because that’s where they house terrorists and child molesters,” Dana added.

She mentioned there is a campaign, FreeMartyG, for building support for him while he is incarcerated.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."